Milwaukee theater continues to expand its horizons with an exciting collaboration between Renaissance Theaterworks, the city’s only women-founded, women-run theater company, and Uprooted Theatre, the only all African-American theater company.
As part of its diversity series, the two companies recently staged “Crumbs from the Table of Joy,” an early work by Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage, an African-American playwright whose last work was seen at The Rep with the 2006 production of “Intimate Apparel.”
“Crumbs” is mostly a memory play told from the perspective of 17-year-old Ernestine Crump (the excellent Tiffany Yvonne Cox in a breakthrough role). Along with her younger sister Ermina, Ernestine travels to Brooklyn from Florida with their recently widowed father Godfrey. His goal is to be closer to the radio evangelist Father Divine, who is unseen but ever present.
Lost in grief, Godfrey’s attempts to strictly control his life and those of his daughters unravel quickly when his wife’s sister Lilly appears. A drinker, smoker and partier, Lilly embraces a Communist ideology at odds with her brother-in-law’s values. He leaves the family, only to return three days later with a new wife – a white German immigrant. At that point, the play’s storyline scatters in different directions.
Fortunately, director Dennis F. Johnson (Up-
rooted’s co-founder and artistic director) has assembled a strong cast that deftly maneuvers the labyrinth of playwright Nottage’s many themes – politics, discrimination, religion. As the hedonistic Lilly, Marti Gobel displays every inch of her multi-faceted talent, from her boastful strut early on to her ever-fragile grasp on the bottle toward the end. Gobel proves once again that she is a major talent, and each movement is a joy to watch.
As Ermina, Ashleigh LaThrop displays a deft balance between teenage rebellion and childish vulnerability. In the challenging role of Godfrey, Morocco Omari is a man on the verge of a breakdown, practicing religious restraint and workplace politics while his world continues to veer outside his control. Cassandra Bissell is fine as Gerte, the new wife who runs up against discrimination in her new homeland.
Johnson does the most he can with the simple, stationary set of a basement apartment, keeping the action moving despite sometimes-preachy monologues.
When Nottage wrote “Crumbs,” she was a young writer just beginning to define her voice and ideas. It was the start of what has become a highly accomplished career. This innovative collaboration allows audiences to see where it all began.